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Solar Financing – The current and future catalyst behind the booming residential solar market (Part III)

By: Scott Rhode

This is the third and last of a three-part blog series focused on the residential solar market looking at; 1) the history of solar technology, 2) current trends and financing mechanisms, and finally 3) overcoming market and regulatory challenges with Experian’s help.

As we’ve discussed in the two previous blogs, the residential solar industry in the US has experienced tremendous growth and much of that growth is attributed to financing.  As the financing offers continue to evolve and mature, there are challenges that the industry faces.

The first, and most obvious challenge, is that the Solar Investment Tax Credit is set to expire on December 31st, 2016. (To be clear, the credit is not eliminated on Dec. 31, 2016, it is simply planned to be reduced to 10%) Given the state of affairs in Washington, it is unlikely that the tax credit will get extended.  This is unfortunate since this tax credit has been a catalyst for investment in this industry, greatly increasing affordability and adoption from the public.  Once this incentive expires, the solar companies will need to acquire capital from more traditional sources (Debt markets, securitization, or other third party financing) to fund their growth since the Tax Equity community may no longer be willing to invest. In addition, the expiration of the credit means that panel manufactures must find ways to reduce the cost of production and that finance and installation companies must lower their customer acquisition cost since they are unsustainable in a post-ITC world.

A benefit of moving towards other means of funding is that the sophistication level of pre-screening, scoring, and portfolio management should improve dramatically.  Today, the Tax Equity community drives all of the credit strategies and those strategies are actually holding solar companies back because of their simplicity.  For example, most of the TE investors require that the customer have a 680 FICO score or better in order to get approval.  They do not require a debt to income threshold to be met, nor do they look at other attributes or data points.  This overly simplistic approach is meant to keep the TE investor out of difficult conversations of being in the “sub-prime” space; however, it greatly limits growth and it turns away good customers.

Additionally, this approach does not consider the “essential use” nature of the product.  When a customer becomes seriously delinquent, their panels get disconnected and their costs for energy go up more than the cost of their monthly lease payment.  This ensures that, unlike an unsecured loan or credit card, the customer is more likely to pay this obligation since it is actually saving them money.  This does not mean that the industry can approve everyone; however, it does mean that, with the right decisioning logic and scorecards, they can go much deeper into the credit pool without taking on huge risks.

Another challenge for the industry is the shear rate of growth.  There are new players in the market every day and even established firms have a hard time keeping up with the growth.  This leaves the individual organization and industry at risk for missing critical compliance steps in their operations.  Given that these financial instruments are long term in nature and more consumers are adopting this as a means to get solar, it is only a matter of time before the regulators start to look into the practices and operating processes to ensure that all of the applicable regulations are being followed.  The industry, as a whole, needs to ensure that they spend a little money now shoring up their compliance instead of paying a hefty fine later.

Finally, what happens at the end of the lease?  Many of the large players have taken a conservative approach as to how they price the residual amount at the end of term; however, no one really knows what these assets will be worth in 20 years.  While many of the panel manufacturers warrant performance for 25, many panels have a shelf-life of 40 years, so how will consumers and the industry behave?  What happens if there is a technological breakthrough in 10 years and those old panels are obsolete?  At the moment, the industry’s answer to these questions is to set a very low residual which carries risk.  Being too conservative here means that your customer’s payment is higher than it needs to be, pricing yourself out of certain markets where the cost of power is less than 20 cents / kwh. As the lease product continues to mature, more focus and emphasis on residual pricing will need to take place to find the right balance for the Consumer and the finance company.

It should be said that while there are risks associated with this industry, all markets and new financing products carry risks.  The goal of this particular blog is to highlight some of the larger risks that this industry faces.  As these are identified, it is incumbent on the industry and partners of the industry to mitigate these risks so that consumers can continue to realize the power of solar.

To close this series, I would be remiss if I didn’t offer up Experian’s Global Consultancy solutions to help address the challenges that the industry faces.  Our knowledge of best practices in the financial services industry allows us to help those companies in the solar market grow originations responsibly, meet their regulatory requirements, and manage their long term risks with customers.  While we cannot solve the funding issues, we can work with organizations and the tax equity community to educate them on the power of decisioning beyond a simple “one-size fits all” score.  In addition, our products and data allow for flexibility and certainty, giving the industry an edge in acquiring new customers in a more efficient and less expensive manner.  Finally, we can help provide advice and best practices in decisioning, risk management, and regulatory compliance so that the industry can continue to grow and thrive.  All in all, we are advocates for the industry and can bring tremendous expertise and experience to help ensure continued success.

Solar Financing – The current and future catalyst behind the booming residential solar market (Part II)

Solar Financing — The current and future catalyst behind the booming residential solar market (Part I)